MELBOURNE- 19 October 2016


The modern art of the Kimberley in northwestern Australia is distinguished by the revival of, and elaboration upon, traditional forms of expression from across the region. Once renowned mainly for the wealth of rock art in north and western areas featuring ancestral beings known as Wanjina, and earlier images of dynamic Gwion Gwion figures (formerly known as Bradshaw figures), the area is now the home of a range of pictorial styles that incorporate both the figurative and the abstracted landscape painting modes.

From the end of the nineteenth century, a series of events changed the face of traditional life across the region. The gold rush in the east, the beginnings of the pearling industry centred on Broome in the west, and the introduction of cattle and establishment of vast pastoral stations across the Kimberley led to dramatic socio-economic changes for Aboriginal peoples, many of whom moved from their customary lands to other parts of the region. Conflicts often arose between the local people and the new settlers, leading to a number of massacres taking place well into the twentieth century. And in the years after World War II, migrations of peoples into the Kimberley from the Great Sandy Desert to the south saw the importation of western desert cultural elements that were, in due course, to manifest themselves in art.

The artistic revolution in modern times originated in the Aboriginal community of Warmun (Turkey Creek) in the eastern Kimberley. A new school of painting commenced in the late 1970s as a consequence of a public ceremony known as the Gurirr Gurirr (Krill Krill) which describes the destruction of nearby Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 in ancestral terms. The Dreaming and its associated rituals had been revealed to Rover Thomas and it was initially under the leadership of Thomas and Paddy Jaminji that a group of painters including George Mung Mung, Jack Britten and Hector Jandanay and one woman artist, Queenie McKenzie, emerged from the community. They painted in a distinctive style that altered between profile and planar views of the landscape using natural pigments on board and canvas. By the time Rover Thomas was selected as the first Aboriginal artist (along with Trevor Nickolls) to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1990, east Kimberley painting had established itself in the Australian art world.

Around the same time, the Aboriginal communities at Fitzroy Crossing1 were making their mark in the public domain of art. One of the early leading lights was Jarinyanu David Downs, a Wangkajunga/Walmajarri ceremonial leader who hailed from south of Lake Gregory and settled in Fitzroy Crossing in the 1960s. His paintings fall into two categories: namely those that reflect his adopted Christian beliefs and are based on biblical narratives, and secondly, chronicles focused on Kurtal the great Rain Ancestor, the bringer of life and law. In the 1980s, Mangkaja Arts, a cooperative of Fitzroy Crossing Aboriginal artists, evolved from an adult education program with Wakartu Cory Surprise and Tjigila Nada Rawlins among its founding members. While the styles vary from artist to artist, Mangkaja painting is characterized by the use of bold colour combinations and designs.

1. The area around Fitzroy Crossing is traditionally the land of the Bunuba, Nyikina and Gooniyandi peoples. The township is now also home to people belonging to a range of language groups originating elsewhere in the Kimberley and from the Great Sandy Desert.